March 31, 2019: “A Nation Of Immigrants”

READING

Warsan Shire was born in Kenya to Somali parents. When she was a year old, they emigrated to the UK, where she and her four siblings grew up. Warsan has won several prizes for her poetry, including the title Young Poet Laureate for London. In 2016, Warsan’s poetry featured prominently in Beyonce’s full length film, Lemonade.

Our reading is an excerpt from Warsaw Shire’s poem called “Home.”

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet stall
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

SERMON: “A Nation of Immigrants”

“They say there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in this country,” the comedian David Letterman once said. “But if you ask a native American, that number is more like 300 million.”

He’s got a point. White Americans, those who are not descended from enslaved Africans or native peoples, like to feel like we own this place.

But by what right? Native peoples had been here 10,000 years when white Europeans came and took the land. By force. A few hundred years later, can any of us say we have a legitimate right to own it?

Really, we are all in the same boat.

For me, our nation’s immigration controversy feels close to home. Because my own family’s migration story still feels fresh – it’s a living part of my own life.

Along with maybe 2 million other Poles, my father’s parents came to the US about 100 years ago, some time in the 19-teens, when US borders were still open to almost all groups.

When I was a kid in the 1970’s, growing up in Dearborn, Michigan, among other first- and second-generation Americans, every kid I knew had a grandma who dressed funny and talked funny. Whether they were Irish or Italian or Polish didn’t matter. Everyone’s house smelled of meatballs and sausage.

Then, in the late 70’s, my industrial city was literally overrun with the next immigrant wave, and things shifted. Fleeing the Lebanese civil war, millions came to the Detroit area. By the time I graduated high school, 60 percent of the students there were Middle Eastern, most shop signs in our end of town were in Arabic, and my neighborhood was known as Little Beirut. Soon my town became the center of the world’s largest Arabic community outside the Middle East.

Was there tension? Sure, some. But most folks just rolled with it. We were all newcomers, and we knew it. We couldn’t pretend otherwise. My father, who taught fifth grade in our local elementary school, was always trying to build bridges. He knew exactly how tough it was for families to adjust to a new country and culture, and he always showed respect.

Now that I reflect on it, you could say that our town was an immigration ground zero. We literally lived through Donald Trump’s worst case scenario, the total nightmare he’s always trying to scare people with. My city was overrun with brown foreigners – and Muslims at that! And what was the result?

Well, let’s see – Thousands of hard-working families, kids settling in and acculturated, street after street of neat, well-kept houses. A model US city, just as it was the generation before. Not a single incident of terrorism.

People are people are people. Almost every last one just wants a way to earn a living, to raise a family in peace. Yes, even Muslims.

Despite all the rhetoric, and despite our national myths, you might be surprised to learn that comparatively, today the US is actually a low-immigration country. According to United Nations data, from 2015 to 2017, the US was in the bottom third of wealthy countries in terms of net new immigration.

Compare that to 20 percent today in Canada and 28.2 percent in Australia. Yes, proportionally Australia has fully TWICE as many immigrants as the US does. And yet Australia and Canada don’t have the immigration backlash that is prevalent in the US. Why?

The issue is being used here, by some, to stir up passions, without regard to fact. For example, the current administration likes to say that we need to close the borders to keep out terrorists.

Under the Obama administration, the US regularly admitted about 100,000 refugees a year. Our current President wants to cut that in half, to 50,000. He claims it’s for security reasons.

So the Cato Institute actually calculated your odds for getting killed by a refugee-turned-terrorist, based on actual data – one in 3.84 billion.

You are 260 times more likely to be hit by lightning. You are 17 times more likely to win the Powerball Lottery jackpot.

So you know, I like those odds. Refugees don’t scare me. Let them come.

If there is a crisis today, it is not about immigration, which is the legal process by which people come to this country. And it’s not about refugees, who are usually fleeing wars and apply to emigrate legally while they are still abroad. The crisis on our hands at the moment is about another category of people, those called asylum-seekers, or asylees. These are people who are already here on US soil, who are claiming asylum under international law, due to threats against them personally, often related to political persecution. Their numbers have jumped by 70 percent just in the last year.

Ten or twenty years ago, most folks crossing the southern US border were single men from Mexico hoping to evade authorities, work and send money back. Many crossed over repeatedly and eventually returned home to stay. When caught, many were simply returned to Mexico without much processing.

Today, that whole situation has changed. Most folks come from Central American countries, not Mexico, so they can’t simply be returned. They cross as family units and immediately seek out authorities, so they can claim asylum, mostly for domestic violence or gang violence. Processing their claims can take years.

Meanwhile, where do they go? Do we detain them in jails or send them out into US communities with nothing?

The current administration is now trying to reject asylum seekers, to force them to stay in Mexico, which is not their country. This is a violation of international law.

Currently, in the US, there are about 800,000 asylum applications waiting to be processed.

Hoping to join that long list soon is a family of asylees our church has adopted this year, through “RIM”, the “Refugee and Immigration Ministry” in Malden.

We protect their privacy, since they left their country last year in fear for their lives and they don’t know the status of family members. They worry that speaking out openly about what happened to them might imperil loved ones still under threat at home. Better safe than sorry.

What we can say about them is that they were horribly abused. They saw a lot of death. Everything they owned was destroyed.

“no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well”

Warsan Shire’s poem could have been written for our family. Honestly, we know all we need to know.

Last fall, Paul B. and Michelle D. were brand new visitors to our church. The couple got our new postcard in their mailbox, and they came to check us out. In the first month, they heard we were forming new social justice ministry teams, and they joined the fledgling Immigration Ministry Team. Someone said, “Who can be our chair?” and Paul stepped up, bravely, not really knowing what he was in for.

Nancy F., a long time member of our former Social Justice committee, had been volunteering for years with RIM, teaching English, so she suggested connecting with them. At their first RIM meeting in January, Paul and Michelle connected our church with the Metro North Cluster, a group of 8 nearby congregations, and the Cluster was voting to take on its third client, the family who had just arrived in Boston. Paul and Michelle voted yes.

What they didn’t know then . . . was that people applying for asylum aren’t allowed to work while they wait. And it could be 6 months to a year of waiting. So in other countries, governments provide housing and food assistance, but not here. Here asylees like our family have nothing and get nothing; they are totally reliant on charity.

What Paul and Michelle also didn’t know then . . was that the other, earlier cluster clients had been single people or small families, who are much easier to house. Most of them had found families in the area willing to host them in their homes, and they had found lawyers, and they were making steady progress toward independence.

Our family is in a trickier spot. Many many of the lawyers who do pro-bono immigration work are now full up with a backlog. So despite their best effort, no lawyer yet.

And the housing thing, don’t get me started. This is a large family, yet, so far three different cluster members have been generous enough to share their houses for a month at a time, which has been great. But the children need a more permanent place. They started school a few weeks ago, but most likely, they’ll have to move again soon. Which may mean new schools and new adjustments. Right now, they have a host until May 1. Just one more month.

Of course, landlords usually demand proof of employment, which cannot be provided. Even the cluster’s promise, its healthy bank account, plus first and last month’s rent, hasn’t been enough to counterbalance the employment issue. yet. It’s a tough sell.

Moreover, we have to find a place that the family will be able to afford once they’re working. And that’s a real puzzle. Thankfully, the children who are old enough have pledged to pitch in with supporting the family, alongside school work.

Rev. Dr. Ruth Bersin is the executive director of RIM. “I know it looks tricky for them now,” she told me the other night on the phone. “But rest assured, it can be done. We’ve been settling families in Boston since 1998. We will settle this one. Keep the faith.”

Just as important, says Ruth, are the intangibles we can provide in the meantime – the support and inter-personal connection we are giving, both as individuals and as a congregation. It will help the family learn to trust again.

“Let me tell you a story,” said Ruth. “One night a couple years ago, I took a young man from the Congo to our congregation’s Game Night in Topsfield. Afterward, I asked him what he thought. He said, ‘Well, honestly, at the start I was afraid to get in your car. I thought you might just be another human trafficker. How would I know? Then I met all your people. I saw your community.’

Ruth says, “People can see that our communities hold us accountable, to one another and to our values. They know what churches are, and they see that we can offer community to them too. It helps them learn to recover, to trust again. And that trusting restores their humanity.”

A case in point. As soon as the youngest member of our asylum-seeking family enrolled in school, one of our church members was on the case. This member drives this young child to school every day, making a special effort to introduce this family to other families at the school.

Last Saturday, this member (and spouse) spent the day with the asylum-seeking family, registering the youngest kids for soccer and buying them soccer cleats.

I sent them an email. “Why are you reaching out in this way”, I asked, “What does it mean to you?”

They wrote back: “It means supporting a family who is trying to navigate a new land with no map. It means making changes in your life to fit them in so they can feel comfort.”

Beautiful, I thought. Doesn’t that just say it all?

I hope you’ll join us at the potluck this Thursday night, to officially welcome our family here. Sure it may take us a while to find them a lawyer and an apartment, but in the meantime, all of us can do like those church members and just offer our kindness and support.

Like my grandparents, Like your grandparents – or maybe their grandparents before them – all of us were once here for the first time, trying to navigate a new land with no map. We can try to imagine what that might feel like.

We can try to imagine what this asylum-seeking family has been through, what they are going through now, and how the little things – some nice food, a new pair of cleats, an introduction to other families with kids their age – can mean so much.

These little things, when done with love, can restore their humanity. And in the doing, they restore ours, too.

Amen.